Sewing 101: Must-Have Tools of the Trade

When you first start a particular craft, it can be hard to know what tools you’ll really need.  And no idea what some things even are! Here are some handy tools I can’t live without.

Figure 1 - General sewing, cutting, pattern making related tools

Figure 1 – General sewing, cutting, pattern making related tools

  1. Ruler – Jumbo sized is best, and a clear one is extra handy so you can see what’s going on underneath
  2. Patterns – buy a few basic patterns: an a-line skirt, a t-shirt, a pair of pants.  You can use these to practice with, and you can play with them and make changes (make a v-neck instead of a crewneck for the shirt or add ruffles to the skirt). Not only will you learn a lot by using them, but once you get good, you’ll be able to modify the patterns to make whole new patterns!
  3. Scissors – get a good pair  of sharp scissors (or 2 or 3… you WILL lose them often, I promise). Your fabric scissors should only be used to cut fabric. NO PAPER. Paper will dull them very quickly and make them useless for cutting fabric. I’d suggest marking them with a piece of tape and making sure everyone else in the house knows they are off limits.
  4. Chopstick or bamboo skewer – or really anything long and skinny like that. They are immensely handy when turning a strap, bag, or pillow right-side-out.
  5. Hand-sewing needles – I try so hard to put needles back in their spot when I’m finished working, but I always manage to lose them. Have some extras on hand so you aren’t caught with no way to fix that pair of jeans that just ripped. It’s also a good idea to have different sizes. Really thin needles are great for beading, and fatter needles work better for thicker materials like denim.
  6. Measuring tape – another item that’s good to have more than one of.
  7. Marking implements – Plain white chalk is good for dark fabrics. The blue pen is good for light fabrics. Both come right out with spritz of cool water.
  8. Pin cushion – Again, the more of these you’ve got, the better. I’d recommend one for your wrist (my green zombie brain was a gift!) and one for your sewing table.
  9. Seam rippers – I’ve lost my fair share of seam rippers, and I can tell you it takes forever to undo a seam with a pair of scissors. These are handy and cheap, thus my collection.


Figure 2
Figure 2 - Sewing machine related tools

Figure 2 – Sewing machine related tools

  1. Thread – Make sure you always have extra spools of black and white thread. Stock up on some other colors you use a lot- for me it’s pink and red.  It’d be really expensive to buy full spools of every color, but they make these sets of cute tiny spools that are the type you’d get in a little hand-sewing kit. They’re perfect for when you need just a little bit of neon orange or puce. You can also often find cheap thread at garage sales and thrift stores.
  2. Sewing Machine Oil – Aside from things actually needed to physically sew (needles and thread), this and your instruction manual are THE MOST IMPORTANT accessories to have for your machine. Keep your machine well oiled and as lint-free as possible. You should avoid blowing on or into the machine to clear lint- acids in your spit can actually damage your machine over time. Plus, blowing lint further into the machine isn’t really helping, is it?  There are extra small vacuum attachments that are perfect for cleaning your machine.
  3. Tweezers – These can be a lifesaver when you’re threading a needle (especially for sergers and coverstitch machines) or replacing a needle.
  4. Sewing Machine needles – Always, always, always, have extras on hand. I didn’t break a needle for the first 6 months I got back into sewing. Then one night, I broke 3 needles in 20 minutes, and then I was out! Always have extras in several sizes and types (ballpoints are good for knits, while woven will work for most other fabrics).
  5. Bobbins – Another cheap item that you can’t really have enough of.
  6. Zipper foot – Hopefully your sewing machine came with a zipper foot, but if not you should be able to find one at a sewing/craft supply store. It can make the impossible task much easier.
  7. Teflon foot – The bottom of this foot is coated in teflon which makes it perfect for sewing over sticky things- some kinds of t-shirts have this sort of gummy ink that most sewing feet hate. It’s also awesome for sewing PVC and vinyl.
  8. Needle threader – I had some of the cheap little coin versions of this for YEARS before I ever realized what they were. And once you’ve used one, you’ll wonder why you didn’t always! Absolutely a necessity if you used woolly nylon thread.
  9. Magnetic Seam Guide – The secret to straight seams and a perfect seam allowance.


Figure 3 - elastic, trims, etc.
Figure 3 - elastic, trims, etc.

Figure 3 – elastic, trims, etc.

  1. Tulle – I buy these 6″ rolls they make for bridal decorations in all different colors. It makes a really awesome trim for the bottom of a skirt, and it’s already measured and cut perfectly for the task!
  2. Decorative elastic – This organza ruffle elastic is awesome for the top edge of a shirt.
  3. Picot elastic – Makes great edging for tops, armholes, waistbands, and straps.
  4. Regular elastic – Ideal for ruching and elastic casings.
  5. Ribbon – For lacing, bows, and more.
  6. Grommet or Eyelet tape – A really easy way to add corset style lacing to something.


Figure 4 - Other assorted tools
Figure 4 - Other assorted tools

Figure 4 – Other assorted tools

  1. Big roll of craft paper – Awesome for drafting patterns. You can also use: old bedsheets, wrapping paper (some even comes with a grid printed on the back, which is really helpful), paper bags, tyvek envelopes from the P.O., newspaper, etc.
  2. Fabric glue – I don’t like using glue exclusively, but it can be really helpful to secure something in place before you sew it down.
  3. Pinking shears – These look like a heavy duty pair of scissors, but when you cut, it looks like this: /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\ This will make the edges of fabric less likely to fray, and it also will make your seams look nice when they’re pressed open.
  4. Permanent Fabric Marker – Fun and handy.
  5. Interfacing – Good for reinforcing things that need added durability. It comes in many weights and they even have fusibles that you can iron right on to the back of your fabric.
  6. Rotary cutter – It’s like a pizza cutter for fabric! This isn’t a must, but it’s handy if you’re cutting through several layers, or if you need really straight lines (like a strip of fabric for a ruffle or a pleat). Make sure you get a cutting mat and a big thick ruler or you’ll mess up your floors and tabletops.
  7. Cutting mat – Handy even if you don’t have a rotary cutter.

Items not shown that you may also find helpful:

  1. Stitch Witchery or other heat bonding product- it’s basically a strip of dried fabric glue that you can used to iron a hem or seam together  instead of sewing.  It’s a good way to stick something squirmy like a zipper in place before you sew it.
  2. Dressform – I got incredibly lucky and found my dressform for $5 at a rummage sale. Check out your local thrift stores, and the craft gods might smile upon you. If you don’t have luck there, you can always try to find a deal on Ebay or other craft/sewing supply stores or DiY it!
  3. Fabric – I don’t think this one needs much explanation, but I’ll list some kinds of fabric that’d be handy to have around. Muslin is good if you’re experimenting and want to do a rough draft first, because it’s cheap. Craft fabric, canvas, or duck cloth is good for making screenprinted or stencilled patches. Knits are good for tops and stretchy waistbands. I like having a variety of broadcloth around in basic prints (polka dots, stripes, houndstooth, etc.) for purses, skirts, pillows, etc.
  4. Buttons – Buttons are good for embellishments, and they’re also handy to have around in case one pops off of your favorite shirt and rolls under the fridge.
  5. Paintbrushes – Make sure you have some broad brushes and foam brushes for filling in big spaces and a variety of smaller brushes for fine lines and details.
  6. Fabric paint or acrylic paint and textile medium or textile ink- You can paint it on, stencil, screenprint, or water it down and use it as a dye for light colors.
  7. Fabric dye – Fabric dye can fix a lot of things and is just fun to play with. Got some ink stains on your favorite pair of jeans? Dye them dark indigo or black and cover the stains. Or bleach that skirt you got at the thrift shop that’d be cool if it wasn’t that ugly orange and dye it green.

Where can you find this stuff?

Most of this stuff is probably available at your local craft store, but online stores like Ebay and Amazon often have the same products for cheaper.

For specific sellers and sites, check out the Craft Supply Database.

7 thoughts on “Sewing 101: Must-Have Tools of the Trade

  1. thank you so much for all this , it helps a ton 🙂 i wanted to ask you where you got your purple cutting mat because i wanted a cutting mat with the shapes already on it 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Laci!

      I’m not 100% certain, because I got the mat as a gift, but I think my mom bought it at Joann Fabrics.

  2. Great list and pictures! I love making my own jewelry as well as clothes – some of the supplies overlap 🙂

  3. Do you use your magnetic seam guide on a computerized sewing machine? I looked them up on Amazon because they sound *fabulous* but there were lots of dire warnings about magnets near computerized sewing machines bringing about Armageddon and such. Any thoughts?

    1. Ahhh, good question! I have not used it on a computerized machine, and I’m sort of glad I never have done so without thinking…. my guess would be that the magnet isn’t strong enough to cause damage, but on the other hand, it’s not really worth the risk of damaging a machine to test that theory!

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